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Sea StoriesThe Coward
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A Gale Of Wind
At midnight Holdsworth came on deck to relieve the second mate. A man
out of the port watch came to the wheel, and stood yawning, scarcely
awake. The night was dark--a hazy atmosphere, through which the stars
gleamed sparely, and the sea like ebony. The rise and fall of the ship
flapped the sails against the masts and drove eddies of air about the
decks, but in reality there was not a breath of wind. There was
something stupendous in the black, profound, and breathless placidity
of the night. The compass swung round in the binnacle anywhere, but
the swell made the rudder kick heavily now and again, and gave the
wheel a twist that flung the spokes out of the man's hand and woke him
This prolonged inactivity was galling. One longed to hear the rush of
parting water and the singing of the wind in the shrouds.
The mainsail flapped so heavily that Holdsworth ordered it to be
furled. The song of the men brought the captain on deck. He flitted,
shadow-like, about the binnacle, sniffed at the night impatiently, and
then went to Holdsworth.
"The glass has fallen half an inch since eight bells," said he.
"Yes, sir; there'll be a change before morning."
"Better stow the royals and mizzentop-gall'ns'l."
"Ay, ay, sir."
These, the topmost sails of the ship, were just discernible from the
deck. In a few moments their dim outlines melted, and some dark
figures went up into the gloom and vanished.
The captain returned to his cabin, and Holdsworth strolled the deck.
At two bells (one o'clock) the haze went out of the sky and the stars
shone fiercely. Holdsworth, standing on the starboard side of the
poop, felt a light air creeping about his face, and the sound of the
flapping sails ceased.
"How's her head?"
He sang out an order, and a crowd of figures came tumbling out of the
forecastle and manned the port braces. The air died away, but
presently came a quick puff which made the water bubble around the
Holdsworth's eyes were upon the weather horizon. The stars burned
purely, but away upon the water-line was a thick shadow.
Again the wind died out, and there was a breathless stillness, amid
which you might hear a sound--vague, murmurous, indescribable--a distant
echo it might seem of something infinitely distant.
"Stand by the topgallant halyards!"
A sense of expectation seemed to pervade the very ship herself as she
stood upright, with her dim canvas flapping in the darkness above.
The distant murmur grew more defined, and took such a tone as you may
hear in small sharp rain falling at a distance upon leaves. Then out
of the murky horizon some clouds came rolling--long, attenuated
shadows, resembling visionary arms clutching at the stars. The murmur
approached; the clouds, swinging along the sky, formed into compact
groups. Hark to the quick hissing of the water lashed by the wind!
In a moment the sails were round and hard, the ship with her
port-chains under water, and the wind screeching fiercely over the
ebony surface of the sea and whitening it with foam.
The captain was on the poop, holding on to the main-topgallant
backstay, and shrieking orders like one possessed. It was, indeed,
briefly, a case of "Let go everything!" Under full topsail, foresail,
staysail, and jibs, the ship was too heavily weighted for the
surprising violence of the wind, and was powerless to right herself.
But every order given was the right one. And now you heard the deep
tones of Holdsworth's powerful voice mingling with the agitated
commands of the skipper, while yards came rushing down upon the caps,
and sails banged and roared aloft, and men shouted lustily about the
decks, and the sea fled in cataracts of foam under the vessel's bows.
A time of deep excitement, but scarcely of suspense--there was too much
hurrying for that.
There would have been something incredible to an inexperienced
landsman in the sight of the dark figures swarming up the shrouds to
give battle to the wild array of canvas which groaned and bellowed
like a dozen thunder-storms in the sky--a spectacle of human pluck not
to be realized, or in the faintest degree appreciated, by those who
have not beheld it. The night black; the yards slanting so that the
extremity of the mainyard touched the water; the footing upon those
yards a thin line which must be felt for by the feet; the canvas,
loosened by the lowering of the yard, bellied by the force of the wind
many feet above the heads of the reefers, and presenting to their
hands a surface of iron; and the three masts quivering under the
shocks and convulsions of the sails!
All hands were at work now, and there were men enough to reef both big
topsails at once, while others over their heads furled the
topgallant-sails. Holdsworth had been one of the first to spring up
the main-rigging; he knew the value of every pair of hands in that
moment of danger; and away--active, daring, his hands and arms like
steel--he clambered for the weather-earing. But the boatswain was
before him, so he made for the lee yard-arm.
Figure a smooth spar, forty-five feet long, sloping at a height of as
many feet to the water's surface, the said surface not being a
mill-pond, but a sheet of foam; figure a pitch-dark night, a line
stretched along the yard down which you must slide to the extremity, a
sail weighing half-a-dozen tons banging at your head and your feet,
and doing its utmost to throw you; then, having reached the extremity
of the yard, figure your legs thrown across it as you might bestride a
horse, beneath you the foaming sea, almost at right angles the
inclined deck of the ship, a long stone's-throw distant--a deep
darkness everywhere, save where a wave, breaking massively, flings out
a phosphorescent light and deepens the blackness of its own
chasm--while the gale yells about your ears, and blinds you with spray
that stings like hail!
Figure this, and then you will very faintly realize what "taking the
lee-earing" in a gale at sea means.
The cries of the men aloft, and the beating of the canvas, sounded
like an unearthly contest in mid-air; but they ceased presently, and
then the hands came hurrying down the rigging and fell to the
halyards. Holdsworth sprang on to the poop, his cap gone, his hair
blown about his eyes, and roared out orders, while the captain, more
easy in his mind about his spars, went aft and hung about the
binnacle, watching the compass often.
The ship was now under double-reefed topsails, and reeling through the
darkness almost bare of sail. The wind was increasing in violence
every five minutes, and an ugly Atlantic sea was running right athwart
the ship's course, hurling great waves against her starboard beam,
which ran in water-spouts of foam as high as the maintop, and was
blown in big, hissing flakes through the rigging to leeward. It was
soon deemed expedient to close reef the topsails; but even under these
mere streaks of canvas the Meteor lay over to the gale down to her
water-ways, with the water bubbling in her lee-scuppers. But luckily
the gale was right abeam, and the vessel could hold her course; but
her speed was comparatively small, and she labored heavily.
So passed the darkest hours of the night. At four o'clock the gale was
at its worst. They had rigged up a hurricane-house in the
mizzen-rigging--a square of tarpaulin, which the wind flattened hard
against the shrouds--and under this shelter sat Holdsworth and the
captain, scarce able to hear their own voices, pitched in the loudest
key, amid the howling of the tempest. Once Holdsworth went below to
look at the glass, and came back saying it was steady. The skipper
roared that he never before remembered so sudden a gale, and
Holdsworth owned that only once was he so caught--in the Pacific, when
they lost their foretop-mast.
There was nothing more to be done, unless they hove the ship to; but
this was not needful. The dawn broke at five, and the pale, cheerless
light illuminated a wild and dreary scene of tumbling desolate waters
billowing in mountains to the horizon. The Meteor, almost under bare
poles, her yards pointed to the gale, her ropes and lines blown in
semicircles to leeward, labored heavily, caught now by a sea that
threw her on her beam-ends, and now swooping into a chasm walled with
boiling green water, making the gale screech like a million
steam-whistles through her rigging, as she drove up against it, while
coiling tongues of water ran in cataracts up her glistening sides and
fell in dead weights upon her deck. The sky, from horizon to horizon,
was a dark lead color, along which under-clouds, in appearance
resembling volumes of smoke, were swept along, torn and rent, and
discharging at intervals quick, biting showers of rain.
Some of the passengers came on deck--the general, Mr. Holland, and Mr.
St. Aubyn. The general turned about when he had advanced a few feet,
and disappeared; Mr. Holland in a very short time followed his
example; but the actor, with manifest looks of terror in his pallid
face, pushed onward with outstretched hands for the hurricane-house.
The captain advised him to go below; but at that moment the ship,
rolling suddenly to windward, shipped a shower of spray, which soaked
the poor actor through and through; a moment after, the vessel heeled
heavily over to leeward; away rolled the actor, impelled both by the
wind and the unerring law of gravitation, and was flung against the
lee mizzen-rigging, to which he was pinned by the violence of the gale
as effectually as if he had been lashed to the shrouds. He screamed
for help, on which Holdsworth went over to him, took him by the arm,
and dragged him against the wind to the companion-hatchway. As Mr. St.
Aubyn staggered below, clinging like a kitten to whatever he could lay
hands on, he was heard to implore Holdsworth to tell him if there was
any danger; but, before the words were out of his mouth, Holdsworth
was clinging to the weather-rigging and calling the captain's
attention to a brig, which had risen out of the sea like an
apparition, and was tearing before the gale with full topsails and
"A Yankee, by her build!" said the captain. "It's only a Yankee who
would carry that sail in such a wind."
It was a sight to see her flying along, sinking her hull sometimes out
of sight, then poised on the giddy summit of a huge wave, whose crest
broke under her bows, her copper bottom glistening like red gold
against the slate-colored water. She passed within a quarter of a mile
of the Meteor's weather-beam, and up flew the stars and stripes and
stood like a painted board at her peak. The second mate answered the
salutation by bending on the small ensign and running it up. Any
further signalling was out of the question in that gale. The men on
board the brig could just be made out. She was a smart vessel,
black-hulled, with bows like a knife, and skysail poles, which gave
her masts an aspect of perfect symmetry; and she was splendidly
handled. She went like a swan over the seething billows, streaming a
foaming wake, and in a very few moments was lost in the haze and gloom
of the near horizon.
As the morning advanced the gale decreased, but a terrible sea was up,
which made the ship labor so furiously that to steady her in some
degree they set the trysail and foresail. There was, however, the
comfort of daylight abroad, and the men could see what they were
about. Both Holdsworth and the captain went below to get a little
sleep, and the vessel was left in command of the second mate, a young
man named Thompson. There were two hands at the wheel and two on the
lookout on the forecastle, glittering in oil-skins, and ducking now
and again to the seas which swept over the ship's bows.
The fore and main hatches were battened down, and the main-deck was a
foot deep in water, which washed to and fro as the ship rolled, and
which, as fast as it ran through the scupper-holes, was replaced by
fresh and heavy inroads of the sea.
But all this was trifling; the vessel was snug, the gale was
moderating, and the extra sail that had been made was driving the ship
through the water in fine style.
Meanwhile, the passengers below, having been reassured by the captain,
were making what breakfast they could off the rolls, tea, and rashers
of ham which clattered about the table and tumbled into their laps.
The trays swung wildly from the deck, and it demanded great vigilance
and close attention to their convulsive movements to repossess one's
self of the cup or plate one placed upon them for safety. The negro
steward shambled round the table, halting every moment to make a grasp
at anything that came in his road to steady himself. Now and again you
heard the smash of crockery. Some conversation was attempted, and the
general invited Mr. Holland to go up on deck and witness a scene which
would probably exceed in majesty Niagara Falls; but Mr. Holland said
he would wait until the vessel was steadier. Mr. St. Aubyn had changed
his clothes and sat holding on to the table, looking the part of fear
infinitely better than he could hope to impersonate it before the
footlights. The ladies remained in their cabins. Mrs. Ashton, overcome
with sickness and the fear of drowning, was driving her maid
distracted with orders which it was out of the poor wretch's power to
execute. In truth, the maid's legs were perfectly useless to her,
which Mrs. Ashton, lying on her back, refused to understand. Cries
were repeatedly coming from the direction of her cabin for "Harry!
Harry!" which received no attention, owing to Harry's--in other words,
to Mr. Ashton's--utter incapacity to move a step without being flung
upon the deck.
A somewhat different scene was presented by the interior of the
forecastle, where both watches were having breakfast. Men holding tin
pannikins stepped easily round to the galley, where the cook was
dispensing a milkless, sugarless black fluid called tea, and retreated
into the twilight of the forecastle, carrying the steaming beverage.
There sat the sailors, some swinging in hammocks with their legs
dangling down, some on sea-chests, some on canvas bags, drinking from
pannikins, swallowing lumps of biscuit hard as iron, or hacking with
the knives they wore in their belts at bits of cold pork or beef
floating in vinegar in tin dishes held between their knees; some
smoking, some making ready to "turn in," and all jabbering away as
gayly as if they were comfortably seated in a Liverpool or Poplar
singing house--the mariner's earthly paradise--and each with his Sue or
his Betsey by his side. Here, more than in any other part of the ship,
you felt her motion--the mighty lifting of her bows, and the long
sweeping fall as she pitched nose under, while the heavy seas boomed
against her outside as though at any moment the timbers must dispart
and the green waves rush in.
At twelve o'clock the gale had decreased to such a degree that they
were able to shake two reefs out of the main-topsail and set the
topgallant-sail. The action of the sea, moreover, was much less
violent. The weather had cleared, the pale blue sky could be seen
shining through the white mist that fled along it, and the sun stood
round and clean and coppery in the heavens, throwing a dark red lustre
upon the quick, passionate play of the sea beneath.
Some of the passengers crawled upon deck and gazed with wonderment
around them. Certainly the panorama was a somewhat different one from
what had been unrolled to their eyes the day before. The ship had a
fagged and jaded look with her drenched decks, her ropes blown slack
with the violence of the wind, and the canvas made unequal to the eye
by the reefs in the topsails. It was again Holdsworth's watch on deck.
The captain walked up and down, chuckling over the improved aspect of
the weather and on the wind, which was drawing more easterly, and
therefore more favorable.
"You can shake out the reefs, Mr. Holdsworth. She'll bear it now," he
Out reefs it was: the ship felt the increased pressure, and rushed
forward like a liberated race-horse.
"This is capital!" exclaimed the old general, tottering about with
out-stretched hands, ever on the alert for a special roll. "A week of
this, captain, will carry us a good way on our road."
"Ay, sir, and we must make up for lost time."
And then presently he gave orders to set the mainsail and the other
"The glass still keeps low, sir," said Holdsworth.
"But let's take advantage of the daylight, Mr. Holdsworth. We mustn't
lose an opportunity."
The sky had now cleared, the sun shone cheerily; the wind, having
drawn aft, was now no more than what sailors would call a main-royal
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